Native Landscapes of Southwest Florida

From swamps to mangrove forests, Southwest Florida’s terrain is unique

Sunrise at Mahogany Run.

To newcomers, Southwest Florida’s topography might seem flat and unchanging, but don’t let its subtleties fool you. Changes in elevation coupled with rainfall create distinct habitats that are home to a web of life for native wildlife and a wondrous spectrum of flora. You are likely quite familiar with the beach and coastal areas, so here’s a primer on the other natural habitats you will encounter as you explore these sometimes hardy, and sometimes fragile, lands.

Pine Uplands: This habitat is high in elevation, at least for Southwest Florida. A few inches in elevation can make a big difference, and this elevation allows for pine forests, which are high and dry areas dominated by needle-leafed slash pine. The trees get their name from the early settlers who “slashed” the bark of the pines and collected their sap to make turpentine and rosin.

Hardwood Hammocks: Tropical hardwood hammocks are found along both coasts of South Florida, and throughout the Everglades and Florida Keys. Hammocks are also called “tree islands” because they rise from wet, low-lying areas. Oaks, sweetgum, hickories—more than 120 species of tropical plants—provide cool and shady refuge for deer and other wildlife during hot summer months.

Cypress swamps
Cypress swamps

Cypress Swamps: These swamps experience seasonal changes in water levels that fluctuate during wet and dry months. Elevations determine hydroperiods—how long soils are saturated or flooded. Many species have adapted to live in this variable habitat, such as the predominant cypress tree. Their knees (above-ground extensions of their roots) and their buttresses (wide fluted bases) provide stability in the soft, organic soils and increase surface area for gas exchange. Cypress trees are deciduous conifers; they lose all their needles in the fall and winter.

Mangrove forest. Photo by Leif Johnson
Mangrove forest. Photo by Leif Johnson

Mangrove Forests: Mangroves play a unique and important role in Southwest Florida’s ecosystem. Red mangroves ring coastal estuaries. Their intricate root systems act as a nursery for many small fish, crustaceans, shellfish, and other marine life during their earliest stages of life. They also provide shelter and nutrients for wading birds and land creatures and protect the coastline from storm-driven waves.

Sawgrass Marshes: These grassy, freshwater wetlands allow for water to move from north to south, making its way from Lake Okeechobee into Florida Bay. Grasses and sedges grow in these important habitats for amphibians. Sawgrass is a sedge with “teeth” lining the edges of its leaves. Marshes provide a protected haven for alligators, otters, apple snails, dragonflies, and wading birds to nest and raise their young.

Open-water Sloughs: Sloughs (pronounced SLOOs) are deep marsh habitats that are slow-moving paths of freshwater utilized by many species, sometimes as a travel corridor. This environment is active with wildlife because it remains wet year-round. Sloughs shed floodwaters and improve the quality of the water as it makes its way into the estuaries in the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay.

Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve
Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve

The Everglades: Worlds Apart

“There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth; remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them.” —Marjory Stoneman Douglas

The Everglades region—a vast, nearly flat, seabed that was submerged at the end of the last Ice Age—is so unique that it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Here’s why, according to these excerpts from the official statement of its significance:

Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness reserve on the North American continent. Its juncture at the interface of temperate and subtropical America, fresh and brackish water, shallow bays and deeper coastal waters creates a complex of habitats supporting a high diversity of flora and fauna. It contains the largest mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere, the largest continuous stand of sawgrass prairie, and the most significant breeding ground for wading birds in North America.

The Everglades contains vast subtropical wetlands and coastal/marine ecosystems including freshwater marshes, tropical hardwood hammocks, pine rocklands, extensive mangrove forests, saltwater marshes, and seagrass ecosystems important to commercial and recreational fisheries. The mixture of subtropical and temperate wildlife species is found nowhere else in the United States.

Everglades National Park provides refuge for more than 20 rare, endangered, and threatened species (including the Florida panther, snail kite, American alligator, crocodile, and manatee). It provides important foraging and breeding habitat for more than 400 species of birds, includes the most significant breeding grounds for wading birds in North America, and is a major corridor for migration.

Facebook Comments